Twenty years ago, in the early morning hours of April 7, 2001, Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alley. Thomas was the 15th Black man killed by police since 1995, and his death sparked days of unrest that highlighted a deep divide between Cincinnati’s Black community and the police. That mistrust, along with lawsuits accusing the department of a decades-long history of racial profiling, helped shape the Collaborative Agreement. We hope our coverage online, on air and on all streaming platforms will start a conversation about what led to the unrest, what has happened since and what work still needs to be done.
CINCINNATI — The last time Keith Fangman appeared on television with Reverend Damon Lynch III, it led to a heated debate on ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel in July 2001.
“You probably have here tonight two of the most polarizing people in Cincinnati, Keith Fangman and myself,” Lynch said that night. “We’re hated in large segments of this community for what we believe in and what we say… It’s going to eventually take us to come together, to bring Cincinnati together, to have some proper police-community relations.”
Twenty years after the 2001 civil unrest in Cincinnati, two of its most divisive figures met again for the first time in years: Fangman, former president of Cincinnati’s Fraternal Order of Police, and Lynch, the former president of Cincinnati’s Black United Front and pastor at New Prospect Baptist Church.
But in 2021, the two men were ready to talk again -- and they were genuinely happy to see each other. Both enthusiastically agreed to a sit-down with WCPO to discuss how the events of April 2001 changed the landscape of policing and activism.
‘A terrible time for the city’
Early on April 7, 2001, then-Cincinnati Police Patrolman Stephen Roach shot Timothy Thomas in the chest after a foot pursuit. At trial, Roach would later explain he thought Thomas was reaching for a gun when really he was just pulling up his pants. Roach was acquitted later that year.
Days after the shooting and long before the trial, peaceful protesters marched to Cincinnati City Hall while Council met to demand an explanation for the killing.
“It takes a lot for the pot to boil over to get what you had 20 years ago,” Lynch told WCPO.
Peaceful demonstrations gave way to unrest in downtown Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine, putting the national spotlight on Cincinnati. Hundreds were arrested, and the unrest resulted in millions of dollars in property damage.
“It was a terrible time for the city,” Fangman said. “It was a terrible time for the community and the police department.”
Lines were sharply drawn, and at the time, both Fangman and Lynch became champions for opposing sides. Both men said they and their families received threats for their words and actions.
“My dad is Damon Jr. They gave my dad the death threats thinking it was me, so my mom and dad had to buy cameras and security,” Lynch explained.
“There were many death threats against my wife and my children and threats to burn our house down,” Fangman said.
Through the unrest, the two men met each other where they worked.
“He came and visited me at the FOP hall. I went to his church and visited him, and it was just he and I talking,” Fangman said.
“Keith and I would have breakfast or lunch at Tucker’s, … but then you’ll see us on Ted Koppel or some other news and we’re on different sides of an issue,” Lynch said.
A mutual respect developed over omelets and coneys, the men said, setting the table for the later signing of the Collaborative Agreement to improve police-community relations.
The Collaborative Agreement
After the unrest ended on April 13, work began on a first-of-its-kind agreement to change policing.
“And the beauty of that was it was collaborative,” Lynch said. “I remember, somehow, 3,500 Cincinnati residents coming together to give their input on what they thought would be… make us a stronger community. I remember the FOP coming to the table. I remember a man by the name of Don Hardin.”
Lynch said Hardin, the FOP’s attorney, who died in 2015, became the “calming voice in the room.”
“He really helped make that happen,” Lynch said.
The Collaborative Agreement led to a change in police pursuit protocol, the Citizen Complaint Authority, mobile crisis teams, Tasers for police, body cameras and more.
“The number of police intervention shootings in this city has dropped precipitously after 2001, and this city deserves credit for that," Fangman said. "The police department and the community deserve credit for that.”
As a former police union president, Fangman is still unapologetic for not holding back when defending officers in Cincinnati and beyond. Looking back at what he said and did as FOP president, he said many of his actions “were absolutely necessary.”
“We’ve gotten to a point in this country where now, even when an officer is fired upon or have a loaded gun pointed at them, even with that, they are criticized like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
Still, Fangman said, there were times he may have gone too far.
“There were times that I was far too strident, I came on way too strong. I think there were times where my rhetoric, although it was straight from the heart, was just too harsh.”
But Lynch said he wouldn’t do anything differently, "because we came out with just the perfect result for the city at that time."
‘The work continues’
The sharp lines drawn two decades ago seem to have blurred in 2021.
“It’s good to see Keith again. We’ve both changed a lot. I have no hair. I don’t know if people can see this but Keith has a ponytail,” joked Lynch.
Fangman, now retired, remembered how he and others in law enforcement saw the video of George Floyd killed beneath the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020.
“It was the most horrific thing I had ever seen, not only in my entire career as a police officer in the city of Cincinnati, as a beat cop my whole career, but in my entire lifetime,” Fangman said. “I was absolutely shocked.”
Fangman hopes people see a paradigm shift that came as outraged police shattered the idea of a “blue wall of silence,” a shift Lynch calls a sign of progress.
“No matter who we are -- whether it’s me, president of the Black United Front, pastor of a church. Keith, FOP president -- there’s a sense of morality and a sense of justice that we should have,” he said.
Lynch looks at the protesting last summer in Cincinnati and rioting elsewhere. He hopes people see the unique predicament for police in a country of racial division.
“When you march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as John Lewis and those did down in Alabama for freedom, and there’s a force that says they don’t want you to march, the governor is not going to stand there and stop you. He’s going to send Keith and those guys,” Lynch said. “So even if they're, like, just true good guys, they are the people… They are the front lines of enforcing, too often, the racial oppression in this country. So it’s not that any individual cop has to be a racist, but they are the ones who are going to get sent out.”
Today, both men agree that progress will come as cooler heads prevail.
“I just wish that American citizens, not only here in Cincinnati but across the country, would realize that you have extreme voices on the left, you have extreme voices on the right and they want nothing more than to continue this anger and animosity between the Black community and policing,” Fangman said.
Twenty years ago, those extreme voices were Fangman and Lynch.
“And I think again the beauty out of the work we did was we worked together to craft something that you know changed policing in Cincinnati, didn’t further divide the community,” Lynch said.
While the two were often at odds, their mutual respect never dwindled.
“I think that today’s leaders across the country could learn a lot from that, in my opinion,” Fangman said.
“The work continues,” Lynch said. “Generations coming after us, they’ll pick up the mantle. They’ll pick up the baton. They can look back at what we did, and it was not easy.”
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